Misbehaviour (2020)

What price progress in Misbehaviour?

Director: Philipa Lowthorpe

Cast: Keira Knightley (Sally Alexander), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada), Jessie Buckley (Jo Robinson), Greg Kinnear (Bob Hope), Lesley Manville (Dolores Hope), Rhys Ifans (Eric Morley), Keeley Hawes (Julia Morley), Phyllis Logan (Evelyn Alexander), Loreece Harrison (Pearl Jansen, Miss Africa South), Clara Rosager (Marjorie Johansson, Miss Sweden), Suki Waterhouse (Sandra Wolsfield, Miss USA), John Heffernan (Gareth Stedman Jones)

In 1970, the Miss World Competition in London was disrupted before a world-wide TV audience by Women’s Liberation campaigners, furious at the competition being the public face of a world that judged women on appearance rather than personality. The disruption was led by post-graduate UCL student Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and commune radical Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), and rather overshadowed for many the fact that, for the first time in history, black female competitors like Miss Grenada Jennifer Hoosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were treated as genuine contenders for the title. Misbehaviour recreates all this wonderfully, but also makes an intriguing exploration of the different ways women can make themselves a place in the world.

It would have been very easy for Philipa Lowthorpe’s engaging film to have designated villains – after all with the casual sexism and objectification of the Miss World competition, you could easily have assigned the competition runners as baddies. Instead the film is richer than that, full of people who genuinely feel they are doing their best in the roles they’ve been given in life. If there is a villain, it’s society itself which traps women into certain roles, and doesn’t allow them to grow.

The film follows three plot lines – the women’s liberation movement, the background of staging the Miss World Competition, and the lives and expectations of the contestants themselves. Of these three plots, the women’s liberation movement is surprisingly the least engaging. Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley do decent jobs, but their characters are more one-dimensional and lack real development (they start the film as passionate rebels and end the film the same way), with this lack of plot being padded out by movie clichés of the “you’re off the protest” variety. 

The real interest surprisingly is the competitors themselves. Like the protestors, the film is keen to not blame the contestants. The ones we follow are smart, intelligent, passionate women who are, by and large, willing to play the game to get their future ambitions realised. We see this most of all for Miss Grenada and Miss “Africa South” (a black South African shoe-horned into the competition to counter accusations of legitimising apartheid): the competition places them in the position of representing victimised minorities, groups that have their options sharply restricted. Having spent their lives being told that only being white, blonde and blue-eyed is beautiful, the chance to set an example to others is important to them – and the film doesn’t downplay or demean this at all.

This is captured particularly in the exploration of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hoosten. A woman willing to use the competition as a springboard to try and build herself a professional career, she is an intelligent and dedicated woman who understands the nature of her competition. Hoosten however rejects being positioned as a victim, as well as the way Women’s Liberation crams all women’s aims into a single homogenous goal. Why should another group of women tell her what is best for her – isn’t that what men have been doing all her life? As a black woman, her only way to get the opportunities that someone like Sally Alexander has – education and career – is to play the hand that nature has given her the only way she can. Mbatha-Raw captures this all extremely well in a quietly judged and affecting performance.

Similar feelings motivate the rest of the competitors. Miss Africa South (an engaging Loreece Harrison) just wants to keep her head down and get home to her family, letting her presence alone make her statements. Miss Sweden (a fiery Clara Rosager) rails against the control and management of the organisers on every aspect of her life while at the competition. It’s a film where women are working to find their place in the world, but accepting that not all those goals will be the same. Keeley Hawes does excellent work as Julia Morley (co-runner of the competition with her husband, a brash Rhys Ifans), a woman trying her best to reform the competition from within.

Lowthorpe juggles these interesting themes – giving oxygen to all these points of view – within a fascinatingly precise reconstruction of the competition itself and the protest. As part of this Greg Kinnear contributes a spot-on performance as Bob Hope, here a sexist comedian from a different era who can’t understand the changing world. The film gets a lot of comic mileage as well from the jaw-dropping sexism of the BBC coverage and the drooling perviness of the reporters rushing to interview the competitors.

“This isn’t the end of anything, but this could be a start” says Lesley Manville in her waspishly delightful cameo as Hope’s wife. She’s right, the world didn’t change overnight. But as the film captures it started getting people thinking, even if it accepted that not all women will have the same view. Sally Alexander and her mother can disagree on women’s roles – “Why would I want to grow up like you?” Sally berates her housewife mother (very well played by Phyllis Logan) – but the two characters can still come together and agree that having opportunities is still better than not. And perhaps that’s what the film is arguing for: all these women are stretching for opportunities. And if that means the world needs to change so half the population gets the same chances as the other half, so be it.

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